Potter’s Raid, April 25, 1865: After 23 days and 300 miles, the raiders return to Georgetown

The Civil War might be winding down in the last week of April 1865, but Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter’s provisional division was still in the field, though marching back to the coast from a successful raid reaching the Sand Hills of South Carolina. On April 21, 1865, a flag of truce relayed the news of a truce, while General Joseph E. Johnston and Major-General William T. Sherman worked out the details of a Confederate surrender.  From that point, Potter’s raiders had a relatively uneventful march to the coast.


Potter directed the column towards the boat-depot at Wright’s Bluff on April 22.  There he transferred “wounded, sick, and about five hundred contrabands” to the boats to ease the march.  Potter himself departed by boat, heading back to Charleston in order to report and receive any new orders.  In his absence, Colonel Philip Brown, of the 157th New York and First Brigade commander, assumed command of the division.  In total, the Federals put twenty-three miles behind them.

For the march of April 23rd, Captain Luis Emilio of the 54th Massachusetts recorded:

At 5.30 a.m., on the 23d, the Second Brigade led out for the day’s march. Now that hostilities had ceased, the force was dependent upon such supplies as could be purchased. A very large number of contrabands were with the column, straggling, and obstructing the rapid progress it was desirable to make. The day was cool and pleasant; the route through a fine country mainly, but wooded and low in places. Intelligence of President Lincoln’s assassination was received, – sad tidings which could hardly be credited. There was much bitter feeling indulged in by the soldiery for a time.  The division accomplished twenty-three miles that day, bivouacking at Stagget’s Mill.

The next day the column continued the march towards Georgetown, through what Emilio described as “a wooded region where no supplies could be obtained.”  He added, “As a substitute for rations two ears of corn were issued t each man.”  The force marched twenty-three miles, for the third day in a row.

Our last bivouac in the field was broken on the morning of April 25th, when in good weather through a timbered country we completed the march.  …  The troops reached town at 5 p.m. after making twenty-two miles.

Thus ended Potter’s 1865 Raid into South Carolina. Potter offered a summary and results in his official report:

The results of the expedition may be summed up in the capture of 1 battle-flag, 3 guns, and 65 prisoners, 100 horses and 150 mules, and the destruction of 32 locomotives, 250 cars, large portions of the railroad, and all the railroad buildings between Camden and Sumterville, 100 cotton gins and presses, 5,000 bales of cotton, and large quantities of government stores.  Five thousand negroes joined the column and were brought within our lines. Our entire loss was 10 killed, 72 wounded, and 1 missing.

Those figures relate a remarkable level of destruction wrought by a small force, and at the very end of the war.   Though one might say such was hardly worth the effort.  Potter’s Raid could not do much more to hasten the end of the war than what had already been done elsewhere. Yet, the real impact of Potter’s Raid was well beyond the military needs expressed in its mission objectives.

In his summary, Emilio indicted higher numbers of contrabands and livestock than Potter had reported:

Potter’s Raid occupied twenty-one days, during which the troops marched some three hundred miles. About three thousand negroes came into Georgetown with the division, while the whole number released was estimated at six thousand.  Our train was very large, for besides innumerable vehicles, five hundred horses and mules were secured, of which number the Fifty-fourth turned in one hundred and sixty.

Whether the figure was 6,000 or 5,000 who were emancipated as result of Potter’s Raid, that statistic was, I would submit, the most important of those tallied.  Instead of being inland to await the resolution of the war and receiving emancipation, thousands had taken advantage of the opportunity to “self-emancipate” in those closing days of the war. And those thousands arrived at the coast, adding to the crisis facing Federal commanders.  Would there be more forty acre plots?  Or would Federal leaders encourage “fair labor contracts“?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 1031;  Emilio, Luis F.,  History of the Fifty-fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, Boston: Boston Book, 1894, page 307-9.)

Secretary Mallory, April 24, 1865: “But the Confederacy is conquered; its days are numbered”

On April 23, 1865, the Confederate Cabinet, then meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, discussed the proposition from General Joseph E. Johnston to surrender his armies.  The cabinet saw no other option but allowing Johnston to accept the terms (the terms as arranged through April 18, which were, at this moment 150 years ago, being invalidated by Federal authorities. You have to keep in mind the time lines in regard to the moving parts here.).

This was a heady decision.  For the Confederate leadership, as I’ve presented before, Johnston’s command was the last card to play – trumped or not.  The surrender of Johnston’s army would effectively signal an end to any thoughts of continuing a Confederate rebellion.  Period.  Leaders don’t make such decisions without weighing information available to them at the time.  And it is important to separate what “we” know after the fact with full appreciation of the event from what “they” knew at the moment in time.  On April 24, 1865, Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory offered a lengthy letter to President Jefferson Davis to explain the position and suggest what should follow Johnston’s surrender.  Mallory’s letter gives us a view of what the situation looked like from Charlotte.  So allow me to present it here, at that length, for our discussion:

Mr. President: In compliance with your suggestion, I have the honor briefly to present the following views upon the propositions discussed in cabinet council yesterday: These propositions, agreed upon and signed by Generals Joseph E. Johnston and W. T. Sherman, may fairly be regarded as providing for the immediate cessation of hostilities, the disbandment of our armies, and the return of our soldiers to the peaceful walks of life, the restoration of the several States of our Confederacy to the old Union, with the integrity of their State governments preserved, the security of their “people and inhabitants” in their rights of person and property under the Constitution and the laws of the United States, equally with the people of any other State, guaranteed, and a general amnesty for and on account of any participation in the present war. The very grave responsibility devolved upon you by these propositions is at once apparent. To enter at all upon their discussion is to admit that independence, the great object of our struggle, is hopeless. I believe and admit this to be the case, and therefore do I advise you to accept these propositions, so far as you have the power to do so; and my conviction is that nine-tenths of the people of every State of the Confederacy would so advise if opportunity were presented them. They are weary of the war and desire peace. If they could be rallied and brought to the field, a united and determined people might even yet achieve independence; but many circumstances admonish us that we cannot count upon their cordial and united action.

The vast army of deserters and absentees from our military service during the past twelve months, the unwillingness of the people to enter the armies, the impracticability of recruiting them, the present utter demoralization of our troops consequent upon the destruction of the Army of Virginia, the rapid decrease by desertion of General Johnston’s army, which, as it retreats south, if retreat it can, will retain in its ranks but few soldiers beyond the by-paths and cross-roads which lead to their homes, together with the recent successes of the enemy, the fall of Selma, Montgomery, Columbus, and Macon, his forces in the field, and his vast resources, all dictate the admission I have made. I do not believe that by any possibility we could organize, arm, and equip, and bring into the field, this side of the Mississippi, 15,000 men within the next sixty days; and I am convinced that both General Beauregard and General Johnston are utterly hopeless of continuing the contest. A guerrilla warfare might be carried on in certain portions of our country for a time, perhaps for years; but while such a warfare would be more disastrous to our own people than it could possibly be to the enemy, it would exercise little or no influence upon his military operations or upon his hold upon the country. Conducted upon our own soil, our own people would chiefly feel its evils, and would afford it neither countenance nor support. Guerrilla warfare never has been, and never can be, carried on by and between peoples of a common origin, language, and institutions.

Our sea-board and our ports being in the enemy’s hands, we cannot rely upon supplies of arms and other munitions of war from abroad, and our means of producing them at home, already limited, are daily decreasing. The loss of Selma and of Columbus, where much valuable machinery for the construction of ordnance and ordnance stores was collected, must materially circumscribe our ability in this respect.

Our currency is nearly worthless, and will become utterly so with further military disasters, and there is no hope that we can improve it. The arms of the United States have rendered the great object of our struggle hopeless; have conquered a reconstruction of the Union; and it becomes your duty to secure to the people, as far as practicable, life, liberty, and property. The propositions signed by the opposing generals are more favorable to these great objects than could justly have been anticipated. Upon you, with a more thorough knowledge of the condition of our country, the character and sentiments of our people, and of our means and resources than is possessed by others, is devolved the responsibility of promptly accepting or of promptly rejecting them. I advise their acceptance, and that, having notified General Johnston of your having done so, you promptly issue, so soon as you shall learn the acceptance thereof by the authorities of the United States, a proclamation to the people of the Confederate States, setting forth clearly the condition of the country, your inability to resist the enemy’s overwhelming numbers, or to protect the country from his devastating and desolating march; the propositions submitted to you, and the reasons which, in your judgment, render their acceptance by the States and the people wise and expedient. You cannot, under the Constitution, dissolve the Confederacy and remit the States composing it to the Government of the United States. But the Confederacy is conquered; its days are numbered; Virginia is lost to it, and North Carolina must soon follow; and State after State, under the hostile tread of the enemy, must re-enter the old Union. The occasion, the emergency, the dire necessities and misfortunes of the country, the vast interests at stake, were never contemplated by those who framed the Constitution. They are all outside of it; and in the dissolution of the Confederacy and the wreck of all their hopes the States and the people will turn to you, whose antecedents and whose present position and powers constitute you more than any other living man the guardian of their honor and their interests, and will expect you not to stand upon constitutional limitations, but to assume and exercise all powers which to you may seem necessary and proper to shield them from useless war and to save from the wreck of the country all that may [be] practicable of honor, life, and property.

If time were allowed for the observance of constitutional forms I would advise the submission of these propositions to the executives of the several States, to the end that, through the usual legislative and conventional action, the wills of the people of the States, respectively, might be known. But in the present condition of the country such delay as this course would involve would be the deathblow to all hopes founded upon them. The pacification of the country should be as speedy as practicable, to the end that the authorities of the States may enter upon the establishment and maintenance of law and order. Negotiations for this purpose can more appropriately follow upon the overwhelming disaster of General Lee than at a future time. The wreck of our hopes results immediately from it. I omit all reference to the details, which must be provided for by the contending parties to this agreement, for future consideration.

Again, this is the assessment at that moment in time.  Mallory did not see a “to the bitter end” fight as an option.  Instead, the ultimate objective was “pacification of the country” in short order.

But, keep in mind that on the same day Mallory presented this letter to Davis, Sherman served notice that the terms were rejected in Washington.  Hostilities would resume within 48 hours.  Complications… complications….

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 832-4.)

150th Anniversary of the Sultana Disaster

I mentioned this on Facebook yesterday, but thought it better to also put out word via a blog post.  This upcoming weekend, the town of Marion, Arkansas will host observances of the 150th anniversary of the Sultana disaster.  Details of the events are posted on the official Sultana 150th website, along with a full schedule of events.

As I’ve mentioned here on the blog before, I lived in Marion, Arkansas for several years.  And the Sultana disaster was one of my choice “field research” topics. I played a role in the dedication of a plaque for the Sultana, placed in town (originally at the city hall, but recently move to the county courthouse).  Many of the names I see active in the weekend activities are old friends.  Though I won’t be able to attend myself, I am looking forward to reports back from those who are able to go.